Over the past few years, Americans have seen attacks on the First Amendment, Second Amendment, 10th Amendment and others.
Now it’s the Fifth Amendment in the crosshairs of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled recently that a suspect’s silence can be used as evidence of his guilt.
The ruling, according to legal expert John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, appears to overturn decades of precedent that the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against self-incrimination means a suspect’s silences does not constitute guilt.
“What today’s ruling by the Supreme Court says, essentially, is that citizens had better know what their rights are and understand when those rights are being violated, because the government is no longer going to be held responsible for informing you of those rights before violating them,” he said.
“Mind you, this is the same court that agreed that cops who tasered a pregnant woman couldn’t be held accountable because they were not aware that repeated electro-shocks qualified as constitutionally excessive and unreasonable force.”
In a move described as “a blow to the fundamental right of citizens to remain silent,” the court’s opinion said people who are not under arrest must invoke their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to avoid having their refusal to answer police questions used against them in a subsequent criminal trial.
The 5-4 decision in Salinas v. Texas had the court affirm the conviction of Genovevo Salinas. He was found guilty of homicide after prosecutors argued his silence during a police interview prior to his arrest was a “very important piece of evidence” and that only a guilty person would have remained silent when questioned about his connection to a crime.
In the opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said Salinas “was required to assert the privilege in order to benefit from it,” even though a person questioned while under arrest could not have his silence used against him.
The institute had filed friend-of-the-court brief on the argument arguing a person’s refusal to answer police questions, even before arrest and before Miranda warnings are given, does not indicate guilt in light of the well-known “right to remain silent.”
The case developed when Juan and Hector Garza were found murdered in their apartment in 1992. Salinas was suspected by police, and he was taken to a police station.
But he was not arrested, and when during the course of the interview, police questioning became more accusatory, he stopped answering.
At the conclusion of the interview, police arrested Salinas for outstanding traffic fines. The district attorney charged Salinas with the murders, but Salinas wasn’t arrested on the murder charge until 2007.
Whitehead noted that during the trial, the prosecutor suggested Salinas’ silence during the police interview prior to his arrest was a “very important piece of evidence.”
He was convicted.
The Supreme Court said a person claiming the protection of the Fifth Amendment cannot do so simply by remaining silent.